Note that this is a small car, just for the driver herself
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Your Mileage May Vary: Women, Cars, Wellington

In one of those life-phase convergences, it seems like I and half my friends are suddenly updating our vehicles. Hence, a post about driving and buying cars while female in Wellington, New Zealand.

Note that this is a small car, just for the driver herself

Aspirational images of fashionable women with cars, 90 years ago and today; click to read the modern driver, Affi’s, take on her car.

Wellington region driving requires vehicular oomph and endurance. We drive and park on steep, winding hill roads, wrangle a storm-swept stretch of highway across Wellington Harbour, and accelerate on other highways that ascend/descend at 45-degree angles. I needed a reliable gas sipper that could take it – my sweet spot was a car with an engine between 1.5 and 1.8 liters. And I wanted to enjoy the 20th-century pleasure of driving while it’s still accessible. You know, while we still have petroleum and the resources to maintain cars.

The moniker of “girl car” is often slapped, like a cartoon character’s feminizing ribbon bow, on visually appealing, fuel-efficient, reliable vehicles. I am grumpy that “girl car” is an insult to the point that I myself feel awkward handling the term – even though I was shopping for a quintessential girl car.  “Girl car” stigma followed me around the car lots. During my month-long car hunt, if I went by myself, salesmen (always men) went deaf and failed to hear my engine requirements.

Despite this, time to look around and reacquaint myself with cars today was very useful, both seeing them in person and checking online reviews. You can find long-term driving online reviews for most cars from 2004 onwards, and these are more meaningful than one-offs. Search for “long term” and “road tests”.  In print, even though its authorial voice is “Boys’ Town Gazette,” I enjoyed the irreverent, informative magazine Top Gear NZ, which has a summary of all the new cars on the market here. Talking with my friends also helped: I had an epic 50-comment social media conversation that was 100% women. “Are you going to get heated seats? A reversing camera? Keyless starting? iPod stereo? A hybrid?” Stymied on hybrids because I don’t have anywhere to plug one in, here’s what I looked at, and what I thought.

  • Hondas – The compact Fit/Jazz is supposed to be good, and I liked it. However, used ones with the 1.5 liter engine carried a premium price, and the ones I did find outside of Honda itself seemed tired after the rigors of Wellington driving. The 1.5 liter Fit Aria sedan finds its way here as an import and, on a test drive, was perfectly adequate, if boxy going around corners. It’s popular in Asia and is worth a look if you are on a budget and need space and security rather than an exciting drive – lots of them get imported into Auckland. Mid-2000s Civics were on the stodgy side – the hatchbacks would make great family cars, or cars for surfers, but I didn’t need that much room. Civics after 2009 looked appealing, but weren’t in my budget.
  • Toyotas – Having had the Vitz/Yaris and the Corolla recommended multiple times, I tried these, too. A friend’s Vitz has survived an incredible amount of driving throughout New Zealand. 1.5 to 1.8 liter ones were punchy, especially the sports versions. Some of these were keyless, a usability change on a par from changing from an older mobile phone to a smartphone.
  • Volkswagen – The boxy but handsome Volkswagen Polo is a favorite with many, and suits Wellington’s driving conditions well, if you can afford the service. I heard the caveat often, “If you can’t afford a new European car, you can’t afford a used one,” because of the service costs.
  • Mazdas/Fords – Mazdas and Fords, despite massive branding differences, are vehicular cousins today, manufactured in close association. Again, it’s challenging to find used ones with engines between 1.5 and 2 liters used in Wellington, because they get bought quickly, with a used-car premium. The Ford Fiesta is similar to the Mazda 2; the Mazda 3 has many fans among my friends; the Ford Focus comes across as a good solid option.
  • Based on my requirements, I should have looked at Nissans, but none captured my attention. They seem like good cars for a good price. -shrugs- I also neglected Kias (just not that many of them) and the Suzuki Swift (very few 1.5 liters in my price range, never quite satisfied with the interiors I saw.)
  • Lemons to avoid are often the “cute cars” of five to ten years ago. I took a peek at some of these, read the online comments, and said “Never mind.” These included: used new-generation Mini Coopers (expensive! CRAZY dashboards), used 2000’s VW Bugs (low luggage space, visibility issues for drivers, and body paint problems in the NZ climate), used Mercedes A-class compacts (don’t get me started).

Being short influenced my car buying experience to a surprising degree. Bringing somebody taller along was a useful way to check that a vehicle that was fine for me was also passable for my passengers. Car salesmen tend to be tall, and car negotiations often begin while everyone is standing up, emphasizing the height difference. (The one woman I found employed at a car place was also tall!) An affable, polite tall salesman talking to me is like a friendly giant – I remain somewhat wary. A tall salesman who decides to play hardball or get aggressive comes across as a brute pretty quickly. (One of these reminded me of Swelter from Gormenghast; another evoked a chilly, dead-eyed H.P. Lovecraft villain.) While these encounters were fascinating, I don’t give brutes my money. The one short salesman I ran across cleverly neutralized his height – and mine – by sitting beside me in cars. Tall salesmen who want shorter customers to feel respected should do this more. By the end of my car search I was deploying fiercely confident body language and flinging myself into equalizing chairs whenever possible.

My top three picks for dealers in the Wellington region are as follows:

  • Upper Hutt Car Sales – This is where I bought my car, a Mazda2. Worth the trip: their web site lists incoming vehicles as well as cars available on site. Lots of Toyotas, Mazdas, and Nissans. The sales staff are low-pressure and genuinely helpful. I’d send my sister here if I had a sister.
  • Turner’s – A large, also low-pressure used car sales place/auctioneer, with a good reputation overall. Largest price range of these three recommendations, from $2000 to premium secondhand.
  • Honda Cars Wellington – Trustworthy cars sold by mannerly staff. I showed up one day to test drive in post-dance-event clothes (showgirl makeup, multiple flower hair clips) and was treated as an intelligent car buyer. Also, note their very good finance interest rate.

Even if you aren’t car shopping right now, here’s some excellent reading about women and/or cars:

  • The Rise of the Flapper – “The rise of the automobile was another factor in the rise of flapper culture. Cars meant a woman could come and go as she pleased, travel to speakeasys and other entertainment venues, and use the large vehicles of the day for heavy petting or even sex.”
  • Cellomom on Cars – Dry, witty, and environmentally minded, this car reviewer looks at both fuel usage and whether a vehicle can fit her three children and a cello inside it.
  • Mis-managed marketing to women – Focusing on the new Honda Fit She, a vehicular embarrassment supreme. “If you just say, ‘Here’s a pink phone for women, or a pink shirt for women,’ women will shoot you in the face.”
  • J.G. Ballard on Cars – In this piece, written in 1971, J.G. Ballard, the author of Crash, foretells the demise of the steering wheel: self-driving cars are becoming legal today.
  • It doesn’t get any more staggering than this history of Hitler and the VW Bug here, complete with photos of Hitler caressing a model of a VW Bug. “Punchbuggy” will never be the same.